Fearing journalism’s nuclear meltdown

By Lyle V. Harris

You probably wouldn’t know it from checking our local media outlets, but Georgia Power, the state’s largest electric utility, is at the center of one of the biggest consumer shakedowns in state history – and there could be more bad news on the way.

The scantly reported story about the failing and costly construction of two nuclear reactor units at Georgia Power’s Plant Vogtle in Waynesboro, Ga. is, at first blush, a textbook example of crony capitalism.

Upon closer scrutiny, it’s also a timely reminder that local journalism – from independent blogs such as the SaportaReport and others – is more important now than ever.

Exactly eight years ago this month, I wrote a column for an online news service I co-founded called GONSO. Our goal was to disrupt the “dead tree” media that was hemorrhaging money and falling out of fashion with consumers who were relying instead on internet sources for their news and information – a trend that’s still playing out today.

Georgia Online News Service Logo

Bristling with great intentions but inadequate funding, GONSO came and went with barely a whimper (may she rest in peace). But back then, when we were still full of piss and vinegar, I started my column with these words:

“There’s no longer any doubt about who’s really running the state of Georgia. It isn’t the Governor. It isn’t the General Assembly. It’s Georgia Power.”

In 2009, you see, Georgia Power had a bright idea, at least for their shareholders. The company convinced state lawmakers and then-Gov. Sonny Perdue (and presumptive U.S. Secretary of Agriculture) that customers should pay in advance for future nuclear plant construction, long before such facilities had begun generating electricity.

Along with a consortium of smaller electric utilities with a stake in the project, Georgia Power had been working since 2006 to build the new reactors at the existing Plant Vogtle site located along the Savannah River. Once completed, they promised, the new reactor units would expand the capacity of the plant’s two, existing reactors that had been completed decades earlier.

But Georgia Power and its partners were determined to hedge their bets, albeit using other people’s money. And with good reason.

The original construction at Plant Vogtle about 30 years ago was a disaster. The project was completed a decade behind schedule and wound up costing 10 times more than Georgia Power had projected. The situation was so dire that the company almost went bankrupt.

At that time, Georgia Power was only allowed to charge customers for nuclear construction costs after the reactors started generating electricity.

To avoid repeating that scenario, Georgia Power’s army of lobbyists persuaded compliant lawmakers to enshrine their outrageous scheme in state law. They claimed that charging customers for construction costs years in advance would actually save them money in the long run.

Since then, customers have been shelling out their hard-earned money for the nuclear build-out, but with none of the benefits. At last count, customers were paying an additional $100 a year on their energy bills to finance the Plant Vogtle construction.

But the latest estimate is that customers could wind up paying about $6 billion in construction costs spread over the next 60 years.

With a blank check in hand and a wink-wink from the Legislature and so-called regulators at the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC), it should come as no surprise that the construction at Plant Vogtle is now about three years behind schedule and a whopping $3 billion over budget.

But it gets worse. My SaportaReport colleague and friend Tom Baxter recently reported that Toshiba-Westinghouse, the construction company working on the Plant Vogtle expansion, is on the verge of bankruptcy. If that happens, Georgia electricity customers may have to dig even deeper to pay for this mess.

Stan Wise, Chairman of the Georgia Public Service Commission

Stan Wise, Chairman of the Georgia Public Service Commission (Courtesy AJC)

For now, Stan Wise, Chairman of the PSC, is claiming everything will be hunky-dory at Plant Vogtle. Someday.

“The Plant Vogtle project continues to make progress despite well-publicized setbacks,” Wise stated in a PSC press release issued in February. “I believe that in the long run this project, when completed, will provide reliable, stable and carbon free electricity for many generations of Georgians.”

But Wise may be whistling past a nuclear graveyard. A bracingly similar situation with a nuclear power facility being built by Toshiba-Westinghouse in South Carolina, where utility customers were charged up front, is also in deep trouble.

Obviously, this is a major story but you wouldn’t know it from the glaring lack of coverage. Kudos to metro area journalists including Matt Kempner and Russell Grantham of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who have been giving this issue the attention it rightly deserves.

But the Plant Vogtle mess has been largely ignored by other local newspapers and most Atlanta-area TV stations. Maybe they can’t afford to get crosswise with Georgia Power and its parent company, Southern Company, major advertisers with extremely deep pockets. Or maybe they’re just too busy covering “breaking news” of the latest live apartment fire to take notice.

Whatever their reasons, the magnitude and importance of this story illustrates the shameful lack of courage and journalistic integrity that has earned the media an even lower public approval rating than our feckless Congress and the dangerous cray-crays in the Trump administration.

Fearless, solid, trustworthy reliable journalism still matters, and it always will. Granted, in an era of fake news, celebrity puffery and fact-free reporting, it may be too late for our media outlets to ever regain the public’s trust.

But if our local newspapers and TV stations ever choose to do so, the Plant Vogtle story unfolding right here in our own backyard would be a great place to start.

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